The prince’s footman is impatiently waiting in the mansion’s foyer while Ella’s stepmother is heating the knife in the kitchen fire so that her daughter, Isabelle, can slice off her own toes. Maman doesn’t care about the pain if Isabelle can fit into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and elevate her whole family to wealth and power. Unfortunately for Isabelle, the prince is tipped off by all the blood, Ella frees herself from the attic, and they ride off into a beautiful life together, while Isabelle is left with her mother and sister, still single, and now minus five toes.
Behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to mortals, the three sisters of Fate have already drawn up the map of Isabelle’s life, and it’s a short one covered with toxic inks. Everything could come to a rapid and disastrous end if not for the intervention of the carefree Chance, he of the long, dark braids and amber eyes. Chance capers into the sisters’ room, steals Isabelle’s map, and makes a bargain with the old crone, later known as Tantine. Thus begins a contest for Isabelle’s life, along with the dubious aid of Tanaquill, the fairy queen of the Wildwood, who had turned a pumpkin into a coach for Ella on the night of the royal ball. Tanaquill reveals to Isabelle that she will only be saved if she can put her heart back together by finding the three pieces that have been cut away. Frustratingly, she does not tell her what those pieces are.
Life is going from bad to worse for the “ugly stepsisters,” and Isabelle is sure that everything would be peaches and cream if she were only pretty, like Ella. Instead of behaving like a princess, though, she has always loved riding horses and roughhousing with the groom’s son, while her sister Tavi wants to study and perform scientific experiments, all of which is completely unsuitable for finding husbands. With war brewing in France and villagers attacking them for their cruelty to the lovely Ella, Isabelle is wasting precious time by mistakenly trying to piece her heart back together by becoming someone else, a girl who could be approved of by whoever it is who makes the rules. If only she could get on the right track in time to save her own life!
Character development reigns in this fiercely feminist retelling of the Cinderella story. All of the wildly diverse secondary characters shape and mold Isabelle’s understanding of real life and of her inner landscape: Chance’s ragtag troupe of magicians and actors, the wealthy yet miserly widow and her bullying dolt of a son who offer Tantine a room in exchange for the hope of an inheritance, and the groom’s son, who is no longer a young boy, but a successful carpenter who builds coffins for a living and whittles toy soldiers in the evenings.
Jennifer Donnelly’s writing is as exquisite as ever. The first line of the prologue reads: “Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.” I first read Donnelly in her novel Revolution, in which a teen girl goes back in time to the late 1700s in France, and then later as Anne of Cleves in The Fatal Throne (reviewed here). In Stepsister, Donnelly is once more in historic France, this time in a more magical setting, slashing at the patriarchy and setting Isabelle up as a sort of Joan of Arc without the crazy voices in her head. Although I have no wish to swing a sword, as Isabelle does, nor to write quadratic equations on cabbage leaves like Tavi, the restrictions on the girls’ lives are entirely, oppressively realistic. While women did not become free several centuries ago through magic, such tales cause us to rejoice that today women are much more— though not quite completely— free. Free to study science and do research, or free to bake cookies and have teas. Free to ride horses and fight battles, or free to cuddle babies and knit socks. Free to show the world who they truly are.
A fantastical adventure with plenty of depth.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.